ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Fourth of July week amounts to a working holiday for the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team this year.
In preparation for their August trip to Italy, the Lobos held the first of 10 NCAA-approved July practices Wednesday. The level of play was better than UNM’s coaching staff expected.
“I’m ecstatic right now,” head coach Yvonne Sanchez said. “It’s our first team practice and in some areas we’re ahead of where we finished last year. Very impressive.”
It’s a much different Lobo team than the one that limped to an 11-19 record in 2013-14. The addition of four freshman guards brings a needed infusion of quickness and ball-handling. The return of posts Ebony Walker and Kianna Keller from injury also gives UNM more size and strength inside.
Even more notable Wednesday was a different energy. The Lobos were in high gear through fast-break and defensive drills at the Pit and Davalos Center.
“It was fun,” junior point guard Bryce Owens said. “Practicing in the summer like this is different, but we’re all excited about going to Italy and just starting a new year. This is a good group.”
One advantage to UNM’s four-game basketball excursion is that it allows incoming players a head start in adapting to their team. Lobo freshmen Kenya Pye, Jayda Bovero, Laneah Bryan and Cherise Beynon are making the most of that opportunity.
“My first impression is that I love it,” Pye said after Wednesday’s practice. “The coaches are very positive and encouraging, and we set a good pace today. I think it’s a great start.”
With a deeper, quicker guard rotation, the Lobos plan to apply more defensive pressure and force a faster tempo in 2014-15.
“I’m excited about that,” Owens said. “We have more height with our guards now, which is something we lacked, and our team quickness is better. We’ll have more guard rotations and, hopefully, be stronger at the end of games.”
Sanchez tried to temper her excitement after a single practice, but ultimately did not succeed.
“This is the kind of team I envisioned when I took over the program,” she said. “The returning players are maturing, and our young guards are coming in ready to meet that level of play. It’s taken a while to get here, but I like what I’m seeing.”
EURO-PIT: The Pit floor is currently lined with temporary blue stripes indicating the dimensions of international basketball. They include wider keys and longer 3-point arcs. The Lobos also must adjust to international rules, including a 24-second shot clock, for their visit to Italy.
“That 3-point line’s a little far,” Pye said. “I air-balled one today that I thought was right on line. It’ll take some getting used to, but it should only make us better.”
MISSING PERSONS: Senior Antiesha Brown and sophomore Alex Lapeyrolerie were not on hand for Wednesday’s practice for entirely different reasons.
Brown is participating in a Point Guard College training course this week at Johnson Center. The course is intended to promote basketball IQ and is not limited to point guards.
“It’s intense,” Brown said, “but I’m definitely learning a lot.”
Brown will rejoin the Lobos for workouts next week.
Lapeyrolerie, on the other hand, will be forced to take a medical redshirt season after undergoing surgery in May. She played through last season with a slight meniscal tear in her knee, but surgery to repair the tear revealed another problem.
“The doctors found a defect in one of her leg bones,” Sanchez said, “and basically had to fill in a hole. The surgery was successful, and Alex is already feeling better, but it’s a six- to eight-month recovery time.”
Lapeyrolerie, a 5-foot-11 guard, appeared in 26 games last season, averaging 1.4 points and 1.1 rebounds per game.